The teenage years are a time of profound change and turmoil no matter what, but growing up during a pandemic makes them especially hard. Just as many adults are struggling to find some sense of normalcy as more people get the COVID-19 vaccines and the nation begins to ease restrictions, teens are trying to find their footing, too.
In a survey of parents of teens released this year, about half said their child showed signs of a new or worsened mental health condition during the pandemic. Those problems aren’t going to disappear because schools are open or summer jobs are possible again.
Parents might be wondering why their adolescent is struggling and how they can help. UNC Health psychologist Samantha Pflum, PhD, provided some insight and advice.
Teens Feel Isolated, Anxious and Sad
Adolescence is the time when people start connecting more with same-age peers instead of having family as their primary unit of connection. During the worst of the pandemic, and even now, those face-to-face interactions have been less common and more complicated—think physical distancing rules at school, for example, that don’t allow for spontaneous socializing.
“A lot of teens and young people are feeling really isolated from the folks in their life outside of their immediate family group,” Dr. Pflum says.
In addition to feeling isolated, adolescents are experiencing a heightened sense of worry and anxiety. Like adults, they’re wondering about the long-term ramifications of the pandemic on their lives.
“Teens are expressing feeling worried or feeling nervous about the future, such as, ‘How is the pandemic going to affect my education? How is it going to affect my chances at getting into college or pursuing a certain type of work?’” Dr. Pflum says. “And they’re experiencing the same kind of reentry anxiety that adults are.”
Finally, Dr. Pflum says a lot of teens have expressed feeling sad, depressed or concerned about whether things will get better in the future.
How Parents Can Help Improve Teens’ Mental Health
While teens may be struggling with their mental health, there are steps that parents and other adults in their lives can take to help. These include:
1. Recognize that teens have many of the same concerns about the pandemic that adults do.
“Being younger doesn’t mean that they aren’t able to understand what’s going on or to reflect on how that makes them feel,” Dr. Pflum says.
If your teen no longer wants to do an activity with friends or even with family, this can be a red flag that he or she may be struggling.
2. Talk to them about their mental health.
If you notice that your child is having a hard time, talk to him or her about it—and listen without judgment. It’s important for parents to validate their children’s concerns.
“Say ‘tell me more about how you’re feeling’ rather than ‘everyone has a hard time as a teenager’ or ‘you’ll get over it,’” Dr. Pflum says. “Lend an ear and say, ‘I’m here for you.’ Being open to listening is important.”
And if you’re concerned your teen may harm himself or herself or others, don’t avoid the subject.
“Do not be afraid to ask, ‘Are you having thoughts of hurting yourself? Are you having thoughts of ending your life?’” Dr. Pflum says. “Parents worry that asking about suicide is going to generate or condone this idea, which is not true. It’s often a signal that you’re a safe person to talk to.”
3. Get help.
If your child’s behavior is unsafe or if your child talks about wanting to harm himself or herself or someone else, seek help immediately. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
If you think your child may be depressed, anxious or dealing with another mental health problem, talk to your child’s pediatrician. Your teen also may benefit from psychotherapy (talk therapy). Many mental health providers are offering video visits, which can be a great way for a teen to connect with a professional for additional emotional support.
If you’re worried that a teenager you love is suicidal, get help immediately by calling 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. For nonemergency situations, you can find a therapist for your child.